Spotlight on Women's Health

Anjali Shah

Healthy Cooking Tips Around the Holidays

November 27, 2018

The holidays often bring delicious meals and treats, and it can be tough to eat healthy with so much good food around. Rather than skipping or cutting out your favorite dishes, why not try making a few small changes to your recipes to cook up healthier versions? We talked to Anjali Shah, a food blogger who runs The Picky Eater. She wants to make healthy eating easy and fun. See her ideas and simple tricks for healthier cooking this holiday season.

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When it comes to favorite family recipes, do you have any tricks for swapping in healthier ingredients?

Yes! I’ll start with an easy one — I always choose whole grains instead of white grains. So, I use whole-wheat pasta (or, alternatively, lentil pasta), brown rice instead of white rice, and whole-wheat bread instead of white bread.

Another thing I like to do is cut back on the cream that’s in so many holiday recipes. If I’m making a cream-based soup, I take white beans and blend them with chicken or vegetable stock. Then I add a splash of cream to it. It still makes a nice, creamy soup, but it’s not as heavy. Plus, beans are a good source of protein. 

I also like to cut the amount of oil and butter in recipes in half. The dish still tastes really good, but it’s a little lighter.

My last swap is for recipes with a lot of sugar. Think about a sweet potato casserole. Sweet potatoes and some of the other ingredients are sweet on their own. I rely on their sweetness and think of sugar as an enhancer, so I use half the amount listed in the recipe.

Do you have go-to ways to work more fruits and vegetables into meals?

I like to look at a recipe and think about the colors in it. For example, mac and cheese: What are the colors? White and yellow. That’s kind of limiting if I want to build a colorful plate, so I think about the other colors I can add to it. Then, I choose the vegetables that represent those colors. In mac and cheese, I think green and orange would be nice. For orange, try pureeing butternut squash and stirring it into the dish. It’s the same with something like oatmeal. It’s white, so what other pops of color can be added? My go-to choices are berries and stone fruits like peaches, cherries, and plums.

For people who don’t love vegetables, pureeing different veggies is a great way to make a more wholesome dish and add important nutrients. Pureed cauliflower, which has a mild flavor, can be added to anything while helping you squeeze in more veggies. If you’re making a soup, add pureed spinach. It takes on the taste of whatever else is in the soup but packs in nutrients.

For people who do like veggies, add a side salad to most meals or a side dish of roasted, stir-fried, or sautéed veggies with spices.

For women looking to cut back on salt, what are some alternatives they can use to season their food?

If you can handle a little bit of spice, I like crushed red pepper or black pepper. I also like ginger and garlic. I think these help boost the flavor.

It’s hard to imagine the holidays without dessert. Do you have tips for making sweet treats healthier?

Basically, you have to decide how healthy you want to go. There are tons of ways to make things healthier, but I see it as a spectrum. It’s as simple as saying you’re going to cut the sugar by a quarter or half. It’s not a huge change, but it means less sugar. When I reduce the sugar, I often add in vanilla, cinnamon, or nutmeg for flavor. On the other end, I sub in whole-wheat pastry flour for all-purpose flour. My baked goods are still fluffy, but again, I’m using a whole grain instead of a white grain. Another great substitute is Greek yogurt for sour cream.

Do you have any secrets for making healthier kid-friendly meals?

For kids, it depends on how picky they are, but I like to start by serving a variety of vegetables and fruits with all meals. It’s good exposure. One trick I’ve found that works is to ask kids to eat the number of bites that equals their age. If they’re 5, that means 5 bites of whatever vegetable you’re serving that night.

For kids who will only eat bread, cheese, and pasta, pureeing fruits and vegetables is a great way to get them into more meals. At breakfast time, make pancakes with whole-grain flour and top them with apple sauce or pureed pears with mashed bananas. For lunch, make a grilled cheese on wheat bread instead of white bread. As a side, try a tomato soup, and you can add in pureed veggies like spinach or cauliflower that they won’t even notice! For dinner, try a quesadilla on whole-wheat tortillas with veggies and cheese.

When you’re grocery shopping, do you have tips for choosing healthy options?

If I’m buying a premade soup or broth — or anything premade — I choose the low-sodium options. If I need vegetables but need them to last longer, I buy frozen ones. But my favorite tip is to stick to the perimeter of the store. That’s usually where the fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and protein foods like meat are sold. The middle of the store tends to have more packaged and processed foods that can be less nutritious.

What’s your best advice for making cooking around the holidays less stressful?

It might still be stressful, but trying to plan in advance can be helpful — and not just during the holidays, but year-round, too. Plan the meal or meals on one day, grocery shop for everything you need on another day, and then do the meal prep ahead of time so that things are ready to go when it’s time to start cooking. If you have family around, split up the responsibilities or get them involved so that it goes faster and is more fun.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.